Escalation on every front

Moshé Machover looks at the new Israeli government and what it means when it comes to Palestinian oppression, ethnic cleansing, religious intolerance and the danger of war with Iran

I am going to talk about the reactionary policies and dangers posed by the new Israeli government that was formed at the very end of 2022. I will start with aspects that may not seem directly connected with the regional dangers, just to put these dangers into context.

This new government is more rightwing, more reactionary than all previous ones, representing an extreme escalation in each and every dimension of Israeli politics. These dimensions are, of course, interconnected. I will put them in ascending order of importance and severity, before dealing with the regional dangers.

First, the new government represents a major shift towards neoliberalism - something not really mentioned in the mainstream media coverage. But in fact the new finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, is committed to a very extreme version of neoliberalism, which he connects to his religious beliefs. He is the head of the Religious Zionism faction and, apart from all his other nice qualities (!), he is a devout follower of the most extreme neoliberalism. So this is number one.

The next aspect in which there is a big shift is the fact that the government is moving Israel towards theocracy. Ironically, in this respect Israel is becoming a little bit more like Iran. There is a difference, of course, in the specific religion that is being imposed, but all theocracies tend to share common features in general terms. I think it is also interesting to add that the kind of religion represented now by a big part of the new government - specifically the party headed by Smotrich - has a messianic kind of theology. I think this also may have echoes in the messianic beliefs of some of the religious leaders of the Islamic Republic.

The majority of Israelis are not in fact religious Jews. Around 20% - the Palestinians - are not Jews at all; they may be Islamic or Christian, but obviously they do not follow religious Judaism, and many have no religion. And among Jews too, a very big proportion are secular. So the population is really divided. Nor is the population united behind the various restrictions and acts motivated by homophobia, misogynism and so on, which are resented by a large part of the Israeli population. The present government has a majority in the Knesset, but it certainly does not have a clear majority among the population.

Here are some examples of what is in store under this new government. First, a greater push towards gender segregation in various forums, including in universities, as well as homophobia. In some areas where there are religious settlements, some religious men are already insisting that women must sit at the back of the bus. But, of course, in Tel Aviv at present this would be unthinkable. Elsewhere, however, there have been individual cases where the driver has refused to take on board a woman who was ‘not properly dressed’: her skirt was too short or whatever. We are going to witness much more of this kind of thing.

Here is another, relatively minor, example: as you may or may not know, the state-owned Israel railways do not run on Saturdays - public transport in general does not run, for religious reasons, because this is supposed to be a day of rest. But now the religious fanatics in the new cabinet are trying to stop repair and maintenance work on a Saturday - the day when up to now, such work has generally been carried out. They are demanding that this should stop, because Jews must not do any work on Saturday. So this theocracy is pushing towards a real downgrading of the overall operation, because repairs will now have to be done on weekdays.

Another illustration of the extreme theocratic tendencies of the new government is a move which may or may not succeed. They are trying to push through the Knesset an amendment to the ‘law of return’ - a piece of racist legislation which gives Jews exclusive right to immigrate to Israel and immediately, automatically, receive Israeli citizenship. Currently, Jews who have spouses or children who are not themselves Jewish (something quite common, especially for those emigrating from the former Soviet Union and the United States) are permitted by the law of return to bring with them their spouses, children and grandchildren. Now these religious fanatics in the Israeli cabinet are saying, ‘Wait a moment - these grandchildren are not proper Jews; they will dilute the ethnic purity of the Jewish state.’ So here we have a point of conflict between religious Zionists, who are following the rabbinical law about the ‘purity of the Jewish race’, and the less religious Zionists, who are more concerned with bringing into Israel as many Jews as possible, even if they are not ‘proper Jews’, according to the rabbinical law.


Next, an important dimension of the reactionary changes explicitly planned by the ruling coalition is a sharp turn to authoritarian rule (within Israel itself, never mind the Palestinian occupied territories, which are already under military tyranny), similar to Hungary and Turkey. A whole raft of oppressive legislation has been announced. Among other things, an ‘overcoming’ law will allow a simple majority of the Knesset to override decisions of the supreme court that disqualify legislation on quasi-constitutional grounds.

The next aspect - in order of ascending importance - is the increased racism against the Palestinians inside Israel: ie, the Palestinians who are citizens of the Israeli state. Even under previous governments, Israel has been an extreme racist country, with the discrimination against Palestinian citizens - some of it is enshrined in law. For example, the law of return itself is a racist law and the same applies to the laws of citizenship, etc. But relatively little of the racism is enshrined explicitly in law. On the other hand, there is no law in Israel against racism, unlike in most self-styled liberal countries, which have legislation banning it - except, that is, for one exception, which the new government is now set to repeal.

This is part of the basic law concerning the Knesset. As you may know, Israel has no formal constitution, but it has a series of ‘basic laws’ which are used in a constitutional way. The basic law about the Knesset disqualifies any candidate according to various criteria, and one is the advocacy of racism. But now the government - and one of the ministers in particular, Itamar Ben-Gvir - wants to repeal this paragraph. You may be surprised to learn that he himself was in the past disqualified under that very paragraph: he is a follower of Meir Kahane, who was elected to the Knesset in 1984, and was found to be so overtly racist that the then Israeli government could not really accept this; and they legislated the said law about the Knesset in order to exclude him. In fact Ben Gvir was a member of Kahane’s party, and was himself disqualified subsequently from running for election under this part of the basic law. So no wonder he is very keen to repeal it.


Next in order of importance (and danger) is the fact that the policies of colonisation regarding Palestinian land are being turbo-charged. This is an area of oppression that has been escalating over the years, but this government is going to raise it to a higher level: ie, intensify the oppression that is already occurring even more. According to their rhetoric and very strongly held beliefs, they are going to move it to a new level.

There are three ways in which this colonial oppressive policy is going to be expressed. Number one is the robbery of land, water and other resources. I am talking here not just about normal robbery: it is armed - this robbery of land, water and various resources, including dwellings and so on, is secured and protected by the Israeli armed forces. So it is not just a question of a few fanatics who do what they like: they are doing what they like under the protection and with the help of the Israeli armed forces.

In this connection it is important to mention that the new government has given control to Smotrich over all civil matters in the occupied territories. He is in charge of the so-called ‘Civil Administration’. The running of the occupied territories by Israel is divided into two branches, and its civil matters, as distinct from military affairs, are handled by this Civil Administration - which in fact is not a civilian organisation, but is under the control of the army. Now that Smotrich has been given control over the Civil Administration, he is going to decide, for example, what area can be stolen from each Palestinian owner.

Meanwhile, Ben-Gvir has been given control over the various police forces that operate in the occupied territories. First of all, the Border Guards, which are a sort of gendarmerie, concerned with policing the Palestinian population. And also various other armed organisations which have innocent names, for example the Nature Conservation Authority. This armed organisation is supposed to protect the natural ecology, but, of course, it is used in order to take first of all a large area of farmland from Palestinian farmers, turn it into a ‘nature reserve’ - and then give it over to Israeli settlers! Land robbery is one form of the repression and control exercised in the Palestinian occupied territories.

The second form is violent raids into the West Bank by the Israeli forces, who allegedly are trying to arrest suspects. They come in large numbers, with armoured vehicles, etc, into Palestinian towns and villages, with the alleged aim of trying to arrest people whom they suspect of plotting something or other. In the course of these raids a lot of people get killed - including many who are not suspected of anything, but are just bystanders - as a result of the extreme violence that is being applied.

Recently I read about a typical incident concerning a worker in the occupied territories, who was employed in tarring the roads. While he was going to work, a big convoy of Israeli border guards was passing by, and he got out of his car to look at the convoy and see what was going on. He was just standing there peacefully, smoking a cigarette. Then a door of one of the vehicles in the gendarmerie convoy opened and a soldier threw a stun grenade, hitting him on the head and blinding him in his left eye. This has been actually recorded - you can see it on a video, because the brother of the worker was sitting in the car taking a video. In other words, the whole thing was documented. Of course, the Israeli forces responded that the victim was engaged in some kind of stone throwing or whatever; but you can see from the video that he was just standing there smoking. That is typical of the incidents we are seeing.


The third and final way in which escalation is going to occur in the occupied territories is through religious provocation, and here I am talking about incursions into the holy places - especially al-Haram al-Sharif, known to Jews as Temple Mount, the mountain on which the mosque of al-Aqsa is situated. This is a focus of provocation. Not for nothing have these fanatics in the new Israeli cabinet been dubbed incendiaries or pyromaniacs: they are out to make deliberate provocation, calculated to heighten tension and increase conflict in the occupied territories and beyond. I do not need to tell you that a major provocation on Temple Mount will have repercussions not only in Palestine, but in the entire Muslim world.

Here then is a possible point of ignition of a conflict which is going to go beyond the confines of Israel-Palestine. This, added to the inevitably increasing resistance of the Palestinian people in the occupied territories, who are subjected to the kind of land robbery and military provocation I have described, is going to lead inevitably to increasing escalation. These religious fanatics who are now in control of the Israeli government do not want to avoid it: in fact they want to provoke it; they are in a messianic frame of mind, which leads them to believe that this is the way to get the Jewish equivalent of the apocalypse.

This, they hope, will lead to a big regional conflagration, which will provide the smokescreen for a new Nakba. They hope to get rid of millions of Palestinians, drive them across the Jordan river into what is now the kingdom of Jordan. And they are hoping for the destruction of the Islamic holy site on al-Haram al-Sharif and the rebuilding of the Jewish temple that was destroyed by the Romans a couple of thousand years ago. This may all sound like a horror movie, but these people are actually thinking in such terms.

I want to conclude by pointing out that under previous Israeli governments there have been constant low-level hostilities between Israel and Iran. Israel calls it the ‘war between wars’, which includes hitting shipping - Iranian-owned ships are targeted by Israel - and there are assassinations. There are some retaliations in the shape of similar operations by the Islamic Republic against Israel. This is a low-level kind of war - Israel cannot conduct a major war against Iran on its own: it would need American support. But it is quite capable, particularly with the new government, of trying to ignite a situation in the area whereby the United States will be dragged into a war against Iran. They are hoping for the return in the near future of a more rightwing administration in the US, which will smooth their path towards an attack on Iran.

A regional war can happen by design, or even by accident, as a result of moves by these fanatics, who may not actually calculate the equation. It is simply that they are irresponsible and do not care about the consequences. So it is not necessarily that they are going to plan a war: they may do, but it is not the only way in which war can break out. It can result from a chain of escalation, starting with provocations.

Obviously Israeli policy-makers have long had plans regarding Iran and they certainly do not care about human rights there (in fact, in the area of human rights they are moving towards convergence with the Islamic Republic). But what they want is to remove a rival local power in the Middle East. Israel is looking to assert its status as the regional hegemon, a subcontractor of American global hegemony. Israeli strategists have looked at various ways to dismember Iran, which is not ethnically homogeneous, and they have been talking about the ‘ideal solution’, which would be the break-up of Iran into ethnic-based states.

What one can predict with certainty is that any Israeli-American intervention in Iran is going to end very badly for the Iranian people. This is the lesson that we can learn from all US interventions in recent decades, starting with Afghanistan, then Iraq, Syria and Libya, etc. Wherever they have intervened - and in most cases it was under the pretext of defending ‘human rights’ - they ended up creating a chaotic situation where such rights actually came under further attack. The case of Afghanistan should act as a lesson.